HOUSTON—Here are three thoughts from Friday night at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros beat the Yankees 7-1 in Game 6 of the ALCS to force a decisive Game 7.
1. The Astros Won This Game 51 Nights Ago
Dallas Keuchel was thinking about going to bed early. It was 10:30 PM Central on Aug. 31, and the Astros had just returned from the impromptu extended road trip on which Hurricane Harvey had sent them. That afternoon, they had hosted the Rangers, but in St. Petersburg, Florida. Now, though, he was finally home and was playing a few games of FIFA to unwind before bed. Then his phone started shaking.
“S---, I’d better answer this,” Keuchel said. “It’s the big dog.”
Keuchel had publicly expressed his disappointment with his front office’s inaction at the non-waiver trade deadline a month earlier, to encourage it to keep hunting. Now the big dog–that’s Jim Crane, the Astros’ owner–was telling him that they were close to bringing in the biggest prize of all, Justin Verlander. There was just one problem: Verlander owned a full no-trade clause, and with thirty minutes to go before the real trade deadline, the one after which even players who passed through waivers couldn’t be dealt, he still wasn’t sure if he’d invoke it. Would Keuchel call Verlander, whom he’d only met in passing, and put in a good word, one Cy Young winner to another?
Keuchel assumed Verlander wouldn’t pick up, but he did. “Not a lot of people calling him from Oklahoma numbers, I’m assuming,” he says. “He probably thought I was a cowboy on a horse and buggy.”
“I don’t want to take too much of your time, but there’s one thing you’re missing,” Keuchel told Verlander. “That’s a World Series ring. You’re not going to regret your decision to come here if you do.”
Less than an hour later, Carlos Correa was also playing FIFA, sitting with his girlfriend in a motel room in Frisco, Tex., that reeked of urine. That’s the type of lodging you get in Double-A, where the shortstop was in the late stage of a rehab assignment after having torn a ligament in his thumb. The news reached him: Verlander was coming. Says Correa, “I threw the controller up to the ceiling and shattered it.”
The Astros analyze everything with probabilistic rigor, so when one executive recently said that Verlander’s results in Houston so far fell into the 99th percentile of possible outcomes, he’s likely not estimating. But they didn’t acquire him, and Correa didn’t sacrifice his PS4 controller, for his five regular season outings in which he went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA. Houston already had an 11 1/2-game lead in the AL West on the night he acquired him. They got him for a night like Friday, which he started with the Astros’ season–and a World Series appearance–on the line.
“I consider him to have a bionic arm,” said manager A.J. Hinch before the game. It seemed that way through six shutout, even easy innings, but in the seventh his heavy recent workload–124 pitches in a Game 2 complete game–seemed to catch up with him and his actually flesh-and-blood appendage. He walked leadoff man Greg Bird, hit Starlin Castro with a pitch and then required ten pitches to strike out Aaron Hicks. Then, for an instant, Todd Frazier seemed to have converted a 95-mile per hour fastball into a tie game. As it turned out, while the ball wouldn’t have cleared the centerfield fence, George Springer’s sensational grab while leaping back into it still saved two runs.
Verlander was definitively mortal by then, and facing Chase Headley, who singled off of him in his first two at-bats. But with his 99th pitch, and 70th strike, Verlander induced Headley into grounding out to first. He pumped his fist. The Astros’ pursuit of him, and Keuchel’s sales pitch to him, was well-aimed: this is indeed someone who wants a World Series ring, and badly at that.
2. HOUSTON, WE HAVE … AN ISSUE
The issue remains its bats, even after a night on which the Astros plated seven runs. Entering Game 6, the top-scoring offense in the game was hitting .147 as a team, with a .447 OPS–worse than Clayton Kershaw’s OPS this year, and Kershaw is primarily known for other skills. The offense had played atrociously no matter how you look at it. No one other than Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel had more than two hits in the series. The first two batters in the lineup, George Springer and Josh Reddick, were a combined 2-for-35. During the regular season, the Astros played 26 games in which they scored nine or more runs, but that’s how many times, total, they’d crossed the plate in five games against the Yankees.
“I’ve tried to forget all those at-bats,” Hinch said Friday afternoon. “They don’t do us any good tonight.”
Though four innings, it was shaping up to be a night of acid flashbacks for Hinch. Yankees starter Luis Severino had matched Verlander, almost pitch for pitch. He’d allowed just two baserunners, on a walk and a single.
Then came the fifth. After Severino issued walks to Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis–with a Marwin Gonzalez groundout in between–Brian McCann stepped in. McCann had been a Yankee between 2014 and `16, but he’d been 0-for-10 this series. He ripped a ground rule double to right, for a 1-0 lead, and suddenly the Astros offense looked like itself again. Two batters later, Altuve ripped a two-run, bases-loaded single–Severino’s 79th and last pitch–to left for a 3-0 lead.
It was plenty for Verlander, but there’s still cause for concern. Until Yankees reliever David Robertson’s disastrous eighth inning, in which he allowed hits to the first four Astros he faced (all of whom scored, to blow the game open), the Astros had produced just three in total. After six games, they now have four players with more than two hits–welcome to the three hits club, Alex Bregman!–and their leadoff men Springer (0-for-3) and Reddick (0-for-4) still aren’t among them. Without Keuchel or Verlander off the mound in Game 7, and with Charlie Morton on it, those two innings must not represent outliers, but a return to form.
3. NO CALL TO THE `PEN?
After the McCann fifth inning double, and before Altuve’s laser, Severino walked Springer to load the bases. Then a hunched figure wearing a navy warmup jacket trotted out toward from the Yankees’ dugout. Most everyone in Minute Maid Park figured it was Joe Girardi, and that Girardi was going to pull his rattled ace, who had thrown only 60 pitches in his Game 2 start. But it wasn’t Girardi: it was Larry Rothschild, the Yankees’ pitching coach, merely coming for a chat. On the very next pitch–an 88-mile per hour slider, up and in–Altuve salted the game away.
In a postseason that might be remembered for how early and often its managers deployed their bullpens, Hinch and Girardi each stuck with their starters perhaps longer than they should have. In Hinch’s case, it made some sense, as his relievers have given him little reason to trust them over even a half-dead Justin Verlander. But it’s unclear why Girardi, who has both the willingness to go to his `pen and the flamethrowers (Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle) to do so effectively, failed to yank Severino. Green, who replaced him a batter too late, worked 2 1/3 scoreless innings.
It was a mistake that he certainly won’t repeat tomorrow night, starting at 8:08 p.m. ET, when Game 7 begins. Both Girardi and you know where all hands will be.